Creating advertisements in unprecedented times

 In early 2020, United Methodist Communications (UMCom), the denomination’s global communication agency, had its national marketing and advertising plan set. The theme: finding joy, hope and community together. Then COVID-19 hit and depicting people in communal situations seemed inappropriate. 

What do you do when your ad campaign spot ends with the main character connecting in-person with a UMC, but services have moved online due to the coronavirus? You adapt, use creativity to problem solve and make an updated version to stay relevant.

“Given that churches weren’t meeting physically, we needed to film a revised ending to reflect our new socially distanced world,” shared Chief Communications Officer Jennifer Rodia. “Safely reshooting a national advertisement during a pandemic is easier said than done, but our creative and hardworking staff made it happen.”

Though the agency’s studio engineer and director of UM Productions organized and delivered the necessary equipment, they weren’t present at the taping as would be usual. Rather, Rodia took the helm as director and she and her husband served as the masked crew in their kitchen. 

The experience was “a far cry from the days when I used to produce TV campaigns for the NFL with 60 people on set,” added Rodia.

The footage was delivered to the Video Editor/Post Prod Supervisor who edited the piece while socially distanced at United Methodist Communications’ studio.

This unconventionally developed advertising campaign proved successful even landing the agency a 2021 Bronze Award from The Telly Awards.

After this ad refresh, the agency’s internal ad team debated how to proceed with a summer/fall campaign. With their outside advertising partner 600 miles away, United Methodist Communications stepped up to craft their first independently produced national ad campaign.

“We had to keep the message out there that The United Methodist Church offered solace amid uncertainty,” noted Director of Creative Strategy Janni Snider. “Our welcoming message never changed – it adjusted. The church still offered community so, we pivoted to show the continuing vibrancy within our denomination.”

Armed with new safety protocols, they aligned with their existing campaign. UMCom's in-house photojournalist captured images and the production team managed the on-location filming and editing. Their design team served in art direction and created an extensive collection of social media ads.

The initial ad featured members interacting outside while safely distanced. However, midway into production, the team felt a need to depict the economic distress that many were facing. With employees now working from home, the empty United Methodist Communications office and a staff member’s home served as the backdrops for people uneasily peeking out blinds and packing up their belongings.

“Over and over, I was hearing ‘What a Year!’  So, that was the impetus for the spot,” shared Snider. “The creative approach involved using stark black-and-white images and transitioning to color footage with hopeful storylines. We had a very short time-frame to accomplish the creative and we were resourceful in how we did it.”

To wrap up an unprecedented year, they reshot and produced their Advent ad to better reflect the realities of feeling stressed during a pandemic holiday season and highlight a virtual invitation to the UMC.

“The advertisements addressed a number of pressing needs in our world. The messages spoke out to those that were feeling lonely, anxious, struggling economically or just trying to stay afloat in a coronavirus world amid unemployment, fear and disharmony,” said Poonam Patodia, Chief Marketing Officer for United Methodist Communications, “We wanted them to see that The United Methodist Church can provide community and support as they go through this journey.”

In 2021, the agency continued to adapt messaging to resonate with people in their current circumstances. The roll-out of vaccines saw the church shifting from doing remote/online services to going back to in-person or offering hybrid offerings for worship services. A shift that also allowed for more traditional production work for advertising content.

During the summer, the agency launched a series of TikTok video ads for the first time. Each ad focused on a specific persona and their need to connect and get back to church. This test proved successful with nearly three million video views.

Building off of that momentum, the 2021 Advent-Neighbors national advertising campaign reprised popular TikTok spots and offers adapted versions for other media. The overarching goal is to help people escape the holiday blues and instead find community at a local United Methodist church where they can come to experience a connection to Jesus Christ - the true source of joy and love.

Though the past couple of years have offered challenges, the agency is committed to pulling together its in-house resources and partnerships to create impactful advertising that fits the realities of the day while carrying on the mission of United Methodist Communications and The United Methodist Church.


*Brenda Smotherman is a Sr. Public Relations Specialist at United Methodist Communications.

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